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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America


Although plasmacytoid dendritic cells (pDCs) have been shown to play a critical role in generating viral immunity and promoting tolerance to suppress antitumor immunity, whether and how pDCs cross-prime CD8 T cells in vivo remain controversial. Using a pDC-targeted vaccine model to deliver antigens specifically to pDCs, we have demonstrated that pDC-targeted vaccination led to strong cross-priming and durable CD8 T cell immunity. Surprisingly, cross-presenting pDCs required conventional DCs (cDCs) to achieve cross-priming in vivo by transferring antigens to cDCs. Taking advantage of an in vitro system where only pDCs had access to antigens, we further demonstrated that cross-presenting pDCs were unable to efficiently prime CD8 T cells by themselves, but conferred antigen-naive cDCs the capability of cross-priming CD8 T cells by transferring antigens to cDCs. Although both cDC1s and cDC2s exhibited similar efficiency in acquiring antigens from pDCs, cDC1s but not cDC2s were required for cross-priming upon pDC-targeted vaccination, suggesting that cDC1s played a critical role in pDC-mediated cross-priming independent of their function in antigen presentation. Antigen transfer from pDCs to cDCs was mediated by previously unreported pDC-derived exosomes (pDCexos), that were also produced by pDCs under various conditions. Importantly, all these pDCexos primed naive antigen-specific CD8 T cells only in the presence of bystander cDCs, similarly to cross-presenting pDCs, thus identifying pDCexo-mediated antigen transfer to cDCs as a mechanism for pDCs to achieve cross-priming. In summary, our data suggest that pDCs employ a unique mechanism of pDCexo-mediated antigen transfer to cDCs for cross-priming.

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